If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.